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Reflecting on Developments in Libya

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This week has been a fascinating one as we stood awe struck by the manner in which the Libyan regime which had been in place for forty two years seemed to have been crumbling. There is always a danger writing on this issue at this time when things are still unfolding. I am now sitting at the airport writing, but unfortunately have not been following the developing news during the day. I had thought that by getting to the airport early for my flight, I would have been able to get an update on developments in Libya.{{more}} No luck however! The television is on a channel bringing golf. No one in the departure lounge appears to be paying attention to it, but it might be that there is some golf fanatic around. Now some good luck, perhaps! I have just spoken to one of the workers who said that he coordinates the use of the television and that it is normally either on a sports or news channel. I informed him that no one appeared interested in the golf. I made a plea for a news channel but after waiting about fifteen minutes, I approached another worker and within three minutes BBC was on the screen. Something appeared wrong with the sound, so I was able to look at the pictures, but the sound was inaudible. So much for that!

This week should teach some valuable lessons to dictators and politicians generally, if only they are prepared to learn. They might however draw different conclusions and get back to square one. The conclusion drawn by analysts and news reporters was that the Gadaffi regime had come to an end. But at this point we are not sure if the man who stood at the centre of things had anything in store. We had thought that Saddam in Iraq had something up his sleeves, but he appeared not even to have had sleeves. Will Gadaffi be the same? At this time, a reward is out for the capture of the big man, dead or alive, the reward money being put up by a wealthy Libyan. The big question that remains is where is Gadaffi? He said that he had made a tactical retreat from his compound. He continued to call on his people to get rid of the rats who had been selling the country to the imperialists. He appeared convinced that there were still huge numbers ready to die for him and who were on their way to Tripoli to get rid of the rebels. It was probably not mere talk. After forty-two years when some followers would have been responding to his every call, why should he not believe that it would continue that way? It was a pitiful situation to hear the Grand Old Man of Libya informing the world that his people were on the way to reverse what had been happening. After so many years at the head of a country, governing in the way he did, one obviously would lose a sense of reality. Reality is then only in your mind and you decree what is reality.

Television pictures showed otherwise, hundreds of thousands of people throughout Libya celebrating, some expressing their views on the politics of Libya for the first time. While at first many refused to disclose their names or let their faces be seen they were now speaking out loudly and showing their faces, being convinced that Gadaffi was no more. Forces loyal to Gadaffi were still fighting in different locations but one did not get the impression that they were there in significant numbers that would allow them to overturn what had been happening.

So while we saw celebrations of Libyans welcoming the birth of a new era, it was difficult to say what was happening in areas loyal to the big man. One of the outstanding features of the story of developments in Libya over the past week has been the misinformation coming from both sides, although it was difficult to really pin this on those who were creating a new revolution because of the way the movement against Gadaffi had been progressing and that no one, not even the Transitional Council could claim ownership of what was happening. News of the capture of at least two of Gadaffi sons appeared not to be true, although there was talk of at least one of them escaping from his captivity. When Gadaffi and his sons talked of the defeat of the rebels, we knew otherwise because we were looking at what was happening in large areas of the country, particularly in Tripoli from Sunday. The smiles on the faces of the people of Libya, the welcome they appeared to be giving to those who moved into Tripoli to rid the country of the Gadaffi forces tell their own story. Many of them were experiencing a freedom which they claimed they were unable to experience in forty two years. For them it was liberation and they appeared to be welcoming it and looking to the future with high hopes.

Obviously, one of the issues around which there will be tremendous discussion in the immediate future would be the role of NATO forces. NATO was maintaining that they were simply carrying out the mandate given to them by the United Nations, a mandate that had to do with the protection of the civilian population. You can only believe this if your only consideration was getting rid of Gadaffi. It is clear in my mind that they went beyond their mandate and provided significant help to the anti-Gadaffi forces that could not have accomplished what they did in the time they did it without the assistance of NATO. It might be that the end justifies the means but all of this would be assessed based on what happens next and the path which Libya takes.

We must make no mistake about this. Governance in Libya is going to be difficult since there are no institutions that currently exist that would make a democratic Libya possible in the short run. The future of Libya must be left to the Libyans but with outside help that is very transparent and coming particularly through the United Nations. Having played the kind of role they did to get matters to this point NATO would obviously fancy its chances in directing things. Theirs was however a United Nations mandate and maybe the UN should provide the framework for whatever happens. Libya has a relatively small population but has enormous wealth. They have before them examples of areas where things went wrong, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. They must avoid going down the paths that those countries followed. While it is important and necessary to look forward it is important to bring this phase to an end quickly and allow the country space to begin to plot a path forward.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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